Definition of Compassion

One of the difficulties about compassion is that there are many different definitions of compassion and ways of understanding it. 

For example, some people describe compassion as a feeling or emotion (like warmth or love), or say that it’s the same as empathy. But from a Compassion Focused Therapy point of view, it’s difficult to root compassion in an emotion as there can be very different emotions that go with and alongside compassion.

Instead, we see compassion as being linked to a motive, and in CFT, we have a very clear definition of what compassion is:

       a sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to relive and prevent it


Definition of Compassion

It can sometimes be helpful to have a printed version of this definition of compassion(see here, and below) as we can use this to discuss with people engage in CFT about how this definition holds two different psychologies of compassion

  1. Engagement with distress and suffering. This involves qualities that allow us to notice, engage with, tolerate and understand suffering and distress, whether that’s in ourselves or someone else
  2. Taking wise action with distress and suffering. This part of compassion involves learning how to work with distress – whether our own or someone else’s – in wise ways 

It’s key in Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) to hold in mind how able the person that we’re working with (or anyone for that matter) are able to connect with these two parts of compassion. Sometimes, we can do the first step – engaging with distress, but struggle to find ways to wisely alleviate suffering (Step 2). But for others, there might be more capacity to do Step 2, but they don’t get there because they don’t notice their distress, or (for example) find it hard to tolerate it when they make contact with it.

Whatever our ability to connect with the two parts of compassion, it’s important within CFT to find ways to help people strengthen in both of these areas. 

If you’re interested in learning more about compassion, and self-compassion in particular, can help you, check our our compassion self-help and resources

And if you’d like to find out more about how the two parts to compassion each contain 6 different competencies or skills, then click here for the compassion circles

Definition of Compassion - Two Psychologies

These handouts have all been adapted from the wonderful work of Paul Gilbert